“Gatherers and hunters par excellence.” That phrase from the Amazon Synod’s solemn-sounding Instrumentum Laboris is hard to let go. Its glittering fatuity is the keynote of a Vatican syllabus for a theologized pre-industrial age in communion with “the identity of the cosmos.” A neo-neolithic age.
It is impossible to think the bishops believe their own cant. Max Scheler’s classic examination of ressentiment makes more sense. The father of philosophical anthropology wrote: “A is affirmed, valued, and praised not for its intrinsic quality, but with the unverbalized intention of denying, devaluing, and denigrating B.” In other words, the “spirituality” and “lifestyle” of Stone Age cultures is romanticized in order to assail civilization. Indigenous peoples are played off against modern market economies and Western culture in toto.
Like old Bolsheviks denouncing the sharks of imperialism, the People’s bishops rail against the ghosts of colonialism. In the tone of Party apparatchiks, they lapse into Sovietisms: “oil extraction industry,” “extractivist mentality,” “agro-industrial.” Good riddance to “business interests” of “mercantilist” classes who conspire to “lay their hands on” the wealth of creation.
The word kapitalisticheskij does not appear, but you can smell its breath. Much of the text suggests that it was written by aging lefties who wish they had grown a ponytail when they had the chance. The Instrumentum was published in mid-June. Within a week, America, the flagship Jesuit magazine, saw fit to print “The Catholic Case for Communism.” Timing was eloquent.
In the second coming of a carbon-neutral world, cited oppressions — with other bourgeois tendencies — will be as kaput as the internal combustion engine. (Not a joke. A Select Committee of the U.K. Parliament proposes to ban all private vehicles by 2050. This past January, Sacramento floated a bill that would ban the sale of internal combustion vehicles throughout the state starting in 2040.) Our synod points back to the future via aboriginal cultures in “multifaceted harmony” with “the life of the universe and of all creation.”
One defense against eco-fundamentalist rhapsodies by a cosmos-hugging Vatican is a ground-level look at the realities of traditional hunter-gatherer life. Start with Nomads of the Long Bow: The Siriono of Eastern Bolivia, a transcription of the field notes of anthropologist Allan R. Holmberg made during his year in the rainforest.
First published in 1950 by the Smithsonian, this slim text records the daily routines of a particular primitive band in the Bolivian Amazon in 1940–41. Written prior to increased acculturation from the 1960s onward, Holmberg’s eyewitness account remains invaluable. His observations go against the grain of current reveries about the paradisal conditions in the pre-contact Americas:
Only one who has traveled in the region can appreciate the myriad forms of insect life that harass the inhabitants. Since a great part of the country is swamp for at least 6 months of the year, mosquitoes of all kinds (and of which the area is never free) can breed unhampered and, as night falls, these insects, together with gnats and moths descend upon one by the thousands. During the day … their place is taken by innumerable varieties of deer flies and stinging wasps. When traveling by water … one is also perennially pestered by tiny flies which settle on the uncovered parts of one’s body by the hundreds and leave minute welts of blood where they sting.
The stamina of early anthropologists and ethnologists puts to shame today’s journalist-activists who romanticize pre-Columbian existence from the stacks of an air-conditioned library. Or on their own laptop, where they can drag-and-drop modernity into the trash:
No less molesting are the ants, most of which are stinging varieties. The traveler in the forest soon learns what kinds to avoid. Especially unpleasant are those which inhabit the tree called palo santo, the sting of a few of which will leave one with a fever, and the tucondera, an ant about an inch in length whose bite causes partial paralysis for an hour or two.
In addition … there are scorpions and spiders whose bites may also cause partial paralysis and for whose presence one must be continually on the lookout; and sweat bees, which drive the perspiring traveler to a fury in trying to escape them. Some mention should also be made of wood ticks, which range in size from a pin point to a fingernail. During the dry season as many as a hundred may drop from a disturbed leaf on to a person as he passes by. One of the most common pastimes of the Indian children, in fact, is picking off wood ticks from returning hunters.
Protruding stomachs were common among Siriono children. Holmberg attributed the distention to hookworm infestation, a familiar complaint in tropical and subtropical nations with poor sanitation. Bare feet provide a point of entry for hookworm larvae that thrive in soil contaminated by feces. (Distention might also have been a symptom of malnutrition, which, like anemia, remains prevalent in the rainforest.)
Eden was unsanitary. Infants were not diapered. There were no latrines:
In the early morning a Siriono hut must be approached with caution so as to avoid innumerable piles of excreta that have been deposited just outside the house during the night. Although adults retire to a respectful distance from the house to defecate during the day … their nightly behavior in this respect is restricted by the intense darkness, the annoyance of insect pests, and the fear of evil spirits, and they seldom go very far from the house. Moreover, the excreta are rarely removed the following day, but are left to gather flies, to dry up, or to be washed away by rain. Thus … the immediate environs of the house become rather unbearable to the unaccustomed.
Our bishops hasten to repeat Francis’s censure of a “culture of waste.” Yet the Siriones, among other aboriginal cultures, traditionally discarded the sick and elderly. Their ancient “worldview and wisdom” recognized the burden placed on group survival by the old and frail. Holmberg wrote:
People who are extremely ill or decrepit and whose period of usefulness is over, are abandoned to die. … The aged and infirm are weeded out shortly after their decrepitude begins to appear. … When a person becomes too ill or infirm to follow the [nomadic] fortunes of the band, he is abandoned to shift for himself.
Ants and vultures do the rest. Synodal enthusiasm for “inter-culturality” is a treacherous thing.
Maureen Mullarkey is a painter who writes on art and culture. Her essays have appeared in various publications, among them: The Nation, Crisis, Commonweal, Hudson Review, Arts, The New Criterion, First Things, The Weekly Standard, and The Magazine Antiques. She was a columnist for The New York Sun.
She also keeps the weblog Studio Matters [www.studiomatters.com] She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or via Twitter @mmletters.